Despite the low impact ratio poetry has on the public landscape, it still takes some serious chutzpah to call your book Material Girl
. The associations with the hit song are immediate, and for good reason. Madonna's Gekko-lite screed is old enough for a ten-year reunion, and after reading Laura Jaramillo's book of the same name, I've begun to see what sifts to the top of the ocean decades after the party.
Throughout this book, which Eileen Miles rightly describes as "just short of too smart", Laura is contending with an accumulation of material beyond the physical plane. Baggage? That term feels thin if only because this isn't necessarily good or bad, it's hard to sense a dichotomy at work in this book. What we collect is front and center, and the sedimentary-like layers that form over years of collecting begin to define us, through detritus and wealth. So the book grows, from small anti-aphorisms in the first section "The Reactionary Poems", which includes:
THE WOODY ALLENIZATION OF THE SPECIES
Before bed, potential structures:
rooms that open onto gardens
gardens onto peonies or paper
poems Homer's blind
in speech and
in carriage. Deliver me with an arrow
in the tendon/a small storm
in the frontal lobe
to sleep to dreams
This is how a poet can utilize references from throughout time successfully. A small poem about how reading before bed can really fuck you up, despite the potential and perhaps best of intentions, or even because of them. "a small storm / in the frontal lobe" seems as good a reason to read as any, that flurry of thought and slush in the mind when one wraps up a piece that really spurred something in the mind. But of course we can't have good things, to draw from the title, the constant worry, the aftermath of a quality storm, "to sleep to dreams / tedious / as living". Instead of a poem walking a subject on the seesaw between "good" and "bad", we get "manic" and "depressive" and more intriguingly the fulcrum between them.
Jaramillo's language does a good job swinging between high/low culture as well as around mania. There is a sense of wallowing in garbage, the wastes, of what we collect through life nowadays. The "Civilian Nest" section elongates the poetic narratives and ups the ante of the pop-saturated landscape these poems occupy. "CONNECTICUT ROCOCO" begins:
My heart is a cat wearing a Hello
Kitty costume, the dumb immutable self dressed up as a version
and you, like a hologram vanishing and shining there sometimes the
t.v. with its moon face casting rays days like Thursday, I am too dim in
my own being
to be present.
Those first four lengthy lines throw a lot at the wall, but it's not so much about what sticks as it is the poet stripping herself layer by layer, an honest appreciation of what we use to define selfhood. Of course, some of that is in a way marketed, because there is a Hello Kitty version of every god damn thing, and eventually we had to expect the heart as a cat in the cat-shaped heart. What we are isn't necessarily what we think we are, and we are often "too dim in / my own being / to be present." A constant complaint of relationships, or an argument that human connection is impossibly futile. But one shouldn't be so quick to assign blame or negative connotations to such feelings, as the poem ends with "Horror is the marrow / of work / and loving, sometimes too."
Thus we see and, in my case at least, appreciate the almost cynical sneer crouched in every poem. These lines feel mostly light- or medium-hearted at most, not to take away from their sting, but rather that mere derision is not the entire point. "GROW AND BULLET-PROOF YOUR MONEY" starts with a recount of a schizophrenic man in New York who, caught up in his disease, is found naked on a rooftop swinging a halogen bulb like "a / light saber at the cops below" , until he is tasered and falls to his death. From there we get:
... at least the department store knows its place as a space of
commerce the mall shits where it eats the cats shit only when we come
home the nest is built from spit VHS spools fur the crumpled
duvet fine veils of dust books form the minaret
is the lust
have for coming into
It's easy, and tempting, to write this off as a "fuck the man and the system" sort of rallying cry, and Jaramillo deftly toys with those emotion. I won't even argue that it's a much deeper sentiment, but rather, a more nuanced interpretation that the system, the city, society, etc. is corrupted, so are we. But at least "the department store knows its place", what's the place for the dead crazy man? Here we are, drowning in material, syllables and objects, rebuilding Babel through a lust for accumulation.
Throughout this book (especially its title poem/final section) we continue to confront and engage with the present. But we also live with ghosts and contend with the past. This book grapples with the confluence of stuff around our lives, and how it collects in and around us, all in an attempt to connect. Even if that connection is impossible, we keep trying:
we will never have had each other
in the absolute steadfastness of fact
that no one will ever have had
each other is the balm some
essential substance that shrinks from naming from obligation
It's both the wound and the salve, our disconnect. Dancing between the two is what makes life so sweet and unpredictable, and poetry worth reading, especially poetry as full of surprises as this. Material Girl
won't be misconstrued as sentimental, but nor is it bitter. Jaramillo has crafted a book out of the dark, funny, poignant, perplexing mass left in the wake of human existence. Not everything in this life is pretty, but these poems shine out from the heap.